March 24, 2014, 1:04 PM

The United States will no longer control the Internet’s key technical functions

ICANN today announced that an international group will instead manage tasks that keep the web up and running for the general public.

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After years in the driver’s seat—or, perhaps more aptly, under the hood—the United States is handing over the keys of responsibility for maintaining the Internet’s underlying technical functions to a global community, the International Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) announced today. ICANN is the non-profit organization tasked with coordinating the names and number that make up web addresses, along with other technical details, such as security protocols, that keep the Internet humming.  It did not immediately respond to a request for comments on exactly what technical functions and responsibilities the United States is giving up.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) also asked ICANN to take over its previously held duties in making changes to root zone files for Internet domain names—a key technical task in opening up new web address and domain names for public use worldwide. The nonprofit organization and its global delegates began the process of determining how the United States will transfer its stewardship of the Internet over to the international community today at ICANN’s 49th public meeting in Singapore, which lasts through Thursday, Mar. 27. ICANN last year opened an Asia-Pacific hub in that country, and another hub in Instanbul, Turkey.

“Absolutely central to everything that we do and that matters to the world at large is the security, stability and resiliency of the system,” says ICANN board chair Stephen D. Crocker.  “The discussion that is taking place now has to do with the stewardship, but with the proviso of continued stability and rock-solid operations of the core functions.”

The executive branch of the U.S. government has requested that ICANN develop a transition plan to replace its role with a “to-be-developed entity and/or process,” explains David Weslow, partner at Washington D.C.-based Wiley Rein LLP who focuses on trademarks, copyrights and domain names. Congress will hold its first oversight hearing on the matter next month —the U.S. government retains the authority to approve the plan ICANN develops.  

 “Retailers will have an opportunity to participate in ICANN’s development of the proposed transition plan and should take full advantage of this opportunity given the potential implications for their businesses,” Weslow says. He asserts the changes underway could have a significant effect on retailer’s online businesses.

For instance, ICANN in the future could decide to impose restrictions on how new top-level domain names—the terms that follow the final “dot” in a web address, like “.com”—are doled out regionally or nationally, though it hasn’t suggested any plans to do so. Or, ICANN could grant various governmental organizations the ability to control how web domains are used within their jurisdictions, perhaps mandating that an e-retailer sell a certain percentage of products from a particular country. Again, however, ICANN hasn’t indicated any such intentions.

Nao Matsukata, CEO of domain name consulting firm FairWinds Partners LLC, adds that the U.S. government for years has been ensuring that “ICANN’s direction aligned with U.S. commercial interests,” but today few e-retailers understand how the organization can affect their businesses. “There will soon be new opportunities to shape the direction of ICANN and for online retailers to find ways to protect their interests,” he says.

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